In 1958, I was 9-years-old and following a familiar path into Lucky's, Mrs. Rusek's soda fountain in East Helena.
For literally every kid in town, the main attraction was the large glass penny candy display case.
"I'll have five Tootsie Rolls, five Sugar Daddies, five Gummy Bears, five N— Babies, and five Watermelon Slices."
Mrs. Rusek followed my instructions, filling the small brown paper bag and exchanging it for my quarter. In seconds I was out the door and off on my bike.
This seemingly innocent, nostalgic little anecdote points to the insidious nature of racism in our country. The often not-so-subtle messages of white superiority have been part of our culture since the first European set foot on these shores. If you were born white, you were born to be inculcated with a belief in the superiority of your race. It's like a cancerous original sin. It's not your fault. It's not my fault. But it's there.
Like many cancers, for now it can't be cured, but it can be managed.
Eventually, like cancer, it can be eradicated as we evolve to be the best we can be. This is my personal faith. Whether it's hard science or social science, I believe in the enormous power of the human spirit and intellect.
We now appear to be at an historic juncture. Ironically fueled in part by acts of modern white supremacist terrorism, symbols honoring racist heroes of the past are being removed. Are we finally coming to terms with our white supremacist heritage?
Germany has removed all public displays honoring Nazi white supremacist heroes, and, in some cases, replaced them with memorials of solemn remembrance and, in effect, national contrition. In Berlin, the Topography of Terror museum fills the space that once held the sprawling lair of Hitler’s bureaucracy. Germany seems to have realistically come to terms with its racist heritage. We know that even today there is still a significant presence of neo-Nazis in Germany who dream of resurrecting the Third Reich. They hold sincere beliefs (abhorrent as they may be). Yet they are not allowed to hold on to public displays honoring the brutal torture and degradation of millions of human beings.
The Holocaust lasted roughly five years. Slavery was legal in America for 245 years. Go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and view the huge piles of shoes once worn by millions made to work at hard labor for their Nazi masters, then murdered. Then travel to Andrew Jackson's Hermitage plantation in Nashville and enter the severely cramped slave quarters where black families lived out their grueling, meager, humiliating existence while serving as the economic backbone of the charmed white southern culture that the Confederacy fought so hard to preserve. Your emotions at witnessing how human beings who claim to be superior can inflict such horrors on their fellow humans are likely to be similar. They were for me. Shock, disgust, disbelief; but mostly, just a deep, deep sadness and angry disappointment in our species.
Certainly there are major differences between the Third Reich and the Confederacy. But the similarities are undeniable. The paradox and hypocrisy of Hitler's faux Christianity and the Third Reich’s tacit alliance with the Vatican, parallels the paradox and hypocrisy of America's heavily nuanced history of slave ownership among our founding fathers.
A National Museum of the Confederacy, located in Richmond, Virginia, the seat of the Confederacy, roughly modeled on the Holocaust Museum, would be a good start at honestly coming to terms with racism in our country. Housing artifacts of slavery and historically significant memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders, including Helena's confederate fountain, it could be an effective resource for greater understanding, and act as a cathartic symbol of national contrition.
This is not to deny the progress made in civil rights legislation; or to ignore the programs our country has adopted to assuage our racial guilt, some of which have arguably backfired. But there can be no substitute for a genuine, massive change of heart. Only then will opportunity be truly equal and wounds be truly healed. Our ingrained prejudice has been long in the making. So it will take time, but the goal of ultimate social awakening is our most worthy aspiration.
Science has been battling cancer for decades. There are more than 100 types of cancer. Likewise, hatred takes many forms. It may be generations before cancer or hatred can be fully eradicated. But today, using various therapies, the symptoms of many cancers can be managed until cures are found. Likewise, all forms of hate can and must be marginalized (not romanticized, normalized, or emboldened), until they can finally be defeated.
That violence will never truly defeat hatred should be self evident. At least for now, the rule of law stills controls in this country. There is no good purpose or need to risk destructive, divisive escalations of violence. Peaceful protest while advocating for strong and fair enforcement by our peace officers, who deserve our support, is the only viable and principled approach to public displays of hatred.
We are now engaged in a painful but necessary national dialogue. Individually, we are having internal dialogues addressing personal prejudice. That is, we are finally honestly attempting to come to terms with the insidious cancer that is racism. This difficult but healthy process, pursued with mutual respect and self-awareness, is our singular path toward raising our national consciousness and expelling hatred from our social DNA.
Bob Pyfer is a retired lawyer with extensive legislative experience and an intense interest in social science and social policy. He lives in Helena.